Independence Mayor Eileen Weir says she sees a community coming together around a shared vision of improved economic vibrancy, specifically better jobs and better paychecks.
She and others have enlisted people in and out of government to push that conversation forward, kicking around ideas and pursuing the ones that seem to make sense. The conversation has been underway for some time.
“It was happening, but … you know, somebody has to put everybody in the room together,” she said.
As often as not, that person in the last few years has been Brad Speaks.
He points to a cadre of people who have been active and mentions the mayor’s twice-a-month meetings of civic leaders to share ideas and kick around plans.
“I think it’s positive,” he said. “I think it’s a step in the right direction.”
Speaks is in the middle of much of that. A few examples:
• As chair of the board of the Independence Chamber of Commerce, he championed the Ford Foundation Initiative that’s led to the career-focused Academies of ISD in the Independence School District high schools.
• He instigated a local economic development summit that has led to this year’s stepped-up conversation about what the mayor has described as her highest priority – raising the city’s median annual wage from about $47,000 a year to $50,000. Tom Lesnak, president of the Independence Economic Development County, said that gain would put another $144 million a year into the local economy.
• He helped Terry and Betty Snapp start the Wednesday evening meals at Stone Church, open to any in need. That’s grown into a major event, with services beyond a hot meal, serving dozens of people and enlisting the aid of many local companies and service groups.
• He started the Independence Civic Council, which has supported local causes. It gave, for instance, $5,000 to kickstart the private fundraising to assist the city with the building of a new farmers market site on the Square, one of the ideas the Tuesday morning meetings have pushed forward.
Weir has noticed all this. She’s named Speaks as the Independence citizen of the year in an award to be presented in September at the annual gala of the Truman Heartland Community Foundation. Mayors of other Eastern Jackson County cities also name citizens of the year, and there are overall awards such as the humanitarian of the year.
The mayor said she doesn’t see the award as being just for what someone has done for the community over the years.
“It’s somebody who’s doing a lot in our city right now,” she said.
Speaks, 59, president and CEO of Speaks Family Legacy Chapels in Independence, stays busy.
“He just kind of embodies the you-only-live-once attitude,” Weir said.
Speaks himself said much of this is grounded in church. He’s been active at Open Arms Community Christ for more than 20 years. He also a seventy in the Community of Christ, that is, he serves as a missionary. His mission field is his community.
“That’s my life,” he said.
He expresses enthusiasm about projects and progress.
Take the farmers market. It’ll go up starting this fall on the north side of the Square, a permanent structure that officials say could host festivals every weekend. Other streetscape improvements are in the works, too.
“It’s an instigator for downtown activity,” Speaks said.
That fits into the vision of making Independence a more attractive place for the next generation of creators and entrepreneurs -- and their families – in a changing society with changing expectations.
“Can they live downtown, can they work downtown, can they play downtown – all without opening the car?” he said.
The Ford Foundation idea, putting high-school students into specific career-related tracks with an emphasis on in-demand jobs, also is intended to promote steady local economic improvement. The program will soon graduate the first students immersed in it for four full years.
“It’s a long-term thing,” Speaks said. “I’m the sort of optimist who thinks it’s already a success.”